Cancer research is being taken to new frontiers thanks to research coming out of BioServe Space Technologies, a NASA-affiliated research center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The research project, called Magnetic 3D Cell Culturing, is using a bioprinting technique developed on Earth to grow more realistically structured cancer cells aboard the International Space Station in an effort to advance cancer treatment research.
In the human body, cancer cells grow into complex, almost spherical structures, while cancer cells grown in labs (in vitro) are restricted to layered structures. (A researcher compares a tater-tot to a stack of pancakes as an analogy.)
Researchers from the BioServe Space Technologies center believe they can effectively grow 3D cancer cell structures that more closely resemble the ones in human bodies in space. Using a bioprinting method called Magnetic 3D Cell Culturing, the scientists have found they can use space station’s microgravity environment to their advantage.
If at this point you’re picturing cancer cells floating around the ISS spaceship, you’ll be glad to know that the bioprinting method devised by the researchers allows them to effectively control the cancer cells’ movements using—you guessed it—magnetism.
By printing gold atoms in a polymer matrix on a culture of human cancer cells (in their experiments they are using lung cancer cells), the scientists are able to use magnets to control the structure and movement of the cells. This is because the gold atoms bind strongly to the cells’ membranes, making them magnetically reactive.
“This technology may enable us to handle cells in space in a way currently not possible,” explained project manager Luis Zea, a research associate at BioServe Space Technologies. “We can use it to manipulate cells and make sure they are where we want them.
“On Earth, you put cells on a biofilm medium and they grow on its surface. That doesn’t happen in space, because there isn’t enough gravity to hold them to that surface. So currently, we start growing cells on a medium on the ground, launch to space, and then start the experiment. With the magnetic particles, we can start growing cell cultures in space the same as on Earth.”
According to research done at Houston-based Nano3D Biosciences, Inc., adding gold atoms to the cancer cells for manipulation purposes does not interfere with or affect the biological processes of the cells, making the bioprinting technique viable for cancer research.
The researchers say the technique could be used to manipulate the structure of 3D cell cultures for a particular type of cancer. Furthermore, having more realistically shaped cell cultures to conduct experiments on could lead to lower drug development costs and other benefits.